Some thoughts on Tabu (Miguel Gomes’s latest); at the outset I will point you here, where you can read a compilation of all the informed criticism and analysis (that I myself haven’t read because I want to put my thoughts down before I read everything the MUBI critics say, fabulous as they are, and then discover that I have nothing left to say).
We generally tend to emerge from films that disconcert us by nervously asking ourselves, “What is the film really about?”, as though there is a simple, throbbing, thematic core that is eluding us, that, if we search for efficiently enough, we should be able to discover and pin down triumphantly, as though to say: Look! This is what the film is really about! Simplification of narratives, usually resulting in reductionist views, is hardly to be lauded, but it helps us at the best of times, to get on and align our discomforts into a straight, manageable line.
That being said, Tabu belongs to that rare breed of films that disconcerts even more if we do happen to pick up a glinting, deceptively essentialist strand of truth that is tensile enough to wrap around our entire perception of the film — should there be one. What is Tabu? Tabu is a film about story-telling, and Tabu is a film about the inevitable nostalgia accompanying a well-told story — respectively, seeing as it’s in two parts, “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise”, in that order.
That arrangement itself should tell you much: the best told stories, or the “more engrossing” ones, as Salman Rushdie acquieses in his memoir, Joseph Anton, are the ones that survive because of their “adoption of complexity and playfulness”, and their “rejection of start-to-finish linearity.” While non-linear narratives in themselves don’t guarantee virtues beyond complexity, I will argue strongly for the fact that Tabu takes its story-telling abilities passionately enough to create a luminous monochrome tapestry that, apart from being gratuitously endowed — and in the right ways — with all the qualities Rushdie lobbies for, is delectable in its ability to frame each shot as a story in itself, little histories that are to be savoured for their perfect, lingering completeness gently tugging at either end of the narrative that glides on long after the film has ended — for who can resist completeness? The shot of Pilar standing alone in her balcony observing the new year celebrations happening across the city is one of the most quietly despairing portrayals of loneliness I have encountered recently in cinema. Similarly, the tracking shot of Aurora and her lover running through the wild grass in the savannah, playfully falling, laughing, and seizing one another conjures up an emotional wreck of a minute; it is a sequence, of a love exploding out of stolen moments of abandon, that arises unexpectedly in the film, simultaneously bringing a lump to your throat and making you afraid for the illicit lovers, because it is a perfectly-timed recollection in the narrative. What is good storytelling if it doesn’t draw you into its most minute details and make you forget yourself, in spite of your fears and your intuitions? These moments are lush tableaux in themselves: another reason why, possibly, Tabuis touted to be disconcerting and a film you will, if instinct takes over, nibble away at furiously; if you aren’t attentive to each moment, it can feel like quickly swallowing a very large, luscious fruit.
For Tabu is also shot in black-and-white: for us modern-viewers, monochrome is an artsy artefact, there is apparently no justification for it unless the film is trying to belong to a very specific retro-politic, and, therefore, saying something “profound”. Tabu, if read as a loving celebration of story-telling, could not have possibly been shot in colour. The first part (at last, we arrive at plot: would it have been fair, however, to have routinely explained the film beginning-middle-end while extolling the virtues of the Other?), “Paradise Lost”, depicts the relationship between three women who are neighbours in modern-day Lisbon: Pilar, a compassionate, religious woman who is firm towards the man who loves her — whom she does not love — and generous towards her neighbours, the old woman Aurora, who takes her elaborate dreams as seriously as she takes her suppressed past, and her help Santa, a black woman who barely speaks but remains a memorable presence in the narrative because we are allowed several, brief glimpses into her silences and preoccupations outside of tending to the xenophobic Aurora: Santa tries to read Robinson Crusoe for her language classes, and she spends several rainy afternoons smoking cigarettes and watching life pan out around her building. She is just as lonely as Pilar and Aurora, but while they confide their fears in her and throw tantrums at her respectively, she is unable to do the same because of her socio-economic position.
An important aspect of good story-telling is this: being able to step outside of yourself and muse about about all the characters you never really engaged with, but cannot help wondering about. “Paradise Lost” is not a narration in the traditional sense of belonging to, or emanating from, a voice, but it is a narration in that as a viewer, one is immediately familiarised with the conceits of powerful story-telling, one of them being empathy, a distant cousin of nostalgia. Pilar crying in the cinema when a portuguese rendition of “Be My Baby” plays on screen, while her artist-boyfriend sleeps peacefully next to her; a medium close-up of Santa’s silent face when Aurora haughtily asks her if she’s angry with her for gambling all her money away; Aurora drawing letters on Santa’s palm because she cannot speak: we are constantly shown how these characters live their individual lives while trying to come together to create relationships that bear some semblance to normalcy. Aurora is shown to be a woman who is heading towards senility, a woman with an imagination too powerful for her to handle, and most of “Paradise Lost” is about Pilar advising Santa to get her to a doctor before it is too late: they are left with, at the end of “Paradise Lost”, an encounter with Ventura, the man whose name Aurora scribbled on Santa’s palm.
Is that another attribute of a well-told story; the inability to look past the details without tending to them carefully and adjusting them into the larger scheme of events? In “Paradise”, the second part of Tabu, Ventura narrates the story of how he is acquainted with Aurora. Both Pilar and Santa are good listeners, one would presume, for we as an audience are subsumed into them and mid-way through “Paradise”, it ceases to matter who they are and even, who Ventura the story-teller is: the past has become the present, and it is that Ventura and that Aurora — the young, passionate lovers fifty years ago in colonial Mozambique — who we are left to grapple with. Time has no significance in Tabu, however, not as far as chronology and details of date-place co-ordinates are concerned: stories are eternal, after all, and they remain relevant only because of their ability to colonise present-time and eat away into our current memory. The crocodile, a tiny, threatening motif that slides in and out of both parts, is, I’d like to believe, a representative of our memory of — and attitudes towards — time, which has remained largely unchanged over the centuries. There were crocodiles then, and there are crocodiles now. They remain just as frightening, and just as provocative. Some of us like to maintain our distance and avoid falling into their canine traps, some of us like to hunt them down and force open their jaws. Aurora and Ventura in “Paradise”, take turns to do both.
It would be naive to succumb to the trap of romanticising the politics of memory –and cower behind nostalgia — and by consequence, story-telling, for in spite of our best efforts, stories have gazes, and very prominent ones too. Setting a good chunk of the story in colonial Africa cannot be unaccompanied by unawareness of the historicity of issues specific to that time, and now, when re-telling it. Although Gomes does not focus especially on the colonial exploitation of the natives, he is highly aware of it, and as viewers we are constantly privy to the fact that his awareness is coded into the relationships the characters have with one another. One of Ventura’s friends is said to prefer native women, and have even harboured a child with one of them, who he takes out on Sundays if he remembers to do so. The ruthless, insensitive side of Aurora also blazes forth in all its glory when Ventura recalls her treatment of the natives. Gomes’s handling of multiple narratives is not only gentle, as though he were separating blinking neurons furiously entangled in a race for who gets to the top of the speech bubble, but also sensual: he shrugs off any notions of hidden secrets or derivative climaxes early on while pruning seemingly insignificant moments that then go on to become the most exquisite ones in the narrative, so despite our inevitable attempts to prefer one character’s view of the story of the other — hardly a difficult one, considering Ventura speaks consistently in “Paradise” — we fail, because narratives are slowly unveiled within narratives, and it is impossible to contain Tabu within a single voice, a single lifetime in our memories. If Paradise is Lost before Paradise actually occured to us, it certainly takes a graceful fall in the hagiography of time.
Perhaps this is the last magnificent feature of Tabu: its ready embracing of the circularity of oral narratives, which is really an emphatic nod to the more pertinent, sacred cause of the unfinished stories in our lives. Nostalgia does take root, after all, in what we can no longer have. The film begins with a prologue; the story of a lost, melancholy man in a colonial era who, unable to run away from the spirit of his dead wife, finally gives into joining her in death. He is shown to be re-incarnated in the avatar crocodile lying at her feet, and together they adopt the texture of a myth whose impact on modern civilization is much more strongly felt if the gaps are left uncovered. “Stories walk,” writes John Berger in Another Way of Telling, “like animals and men. And their steps are not only between narrated events but between each sentence, sometimes each word. Every step is a stride over something not said.” Mount Tabu is, as Gomes points out, not even a real territory in Mozambique. Why must it be? Fictions walk in landscapes specially crafted for them. In this case, our memories, and they are only as real as the stories we take to heart.